Doug Glanville got video bombed while doing a Cubs game. He didn’t know it at the time, but found it soon enough.
Ambiguity has always been a friend to racism.
On May 7, during a television broadcast of a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field, I was on camera doing in-game commentary for NBC Sports Chicago when, unbeknown to me, a fan behind me wearing a Cubs sweatshirt made an upside-down “O.K.” sign with his hand.
He’s right that ambiguity has always been a friend to racism, but the problem is that ambiguity is a friend to everything, because it’s ambiguous, and thus susceptible to many interpretations, all of which are similarly valid and invalid because that’s the nature of ambiguity.
Criminal defense lawyers tend to possess an exceptional tolerance of ambiguity, as so much of what we deal with is ambiguous, supporting whatever people want to make of a word, a gesture, when there are many equally valid alternatives. It’s just a matter of rhetoric and belief, because ambiguity means that there are no facts to provide any conclusive answer. A former ballplayer turned TV sports guy probably doesn’t have to face this too often. Glanville did here.
The meaning of this hand gesture can be ambiguous. It has long been used to simply say, “O.K.” Some people also use it to play the “circle game,” where you hold your hand below your waist and try to get others to look at it. And most recently it has been co-opted to express support for white supremacy. The man accused of committing the New Zealand mosque massacres flashed this sign during his first court appearance.
Because I am a person of color, the fan’s gesture suggested its sinister meaning.
He’s not wrong, but that doesn’t make him right, either. Rather, Glanville made a choice based not on the person who made the gesture, but upon his status. To his credit, he realizes what he’s done here.
I come to the debate about the Cubs fan’s “O.K.” gesture with a strong personal experience of how racism works in our country. I realize that this does not make the fan guilty of racism. But in the larger context, his guilt or innocence is not the whole story.
If you innocently decorate your office with a rope shaped into a noose because you like rodeo cowboys, I can still be offended. You can like rodeo cowboys; I can be upset. Both can be true. The fact that you like rodeo cowboys does not mean I am overreacting, nor does it make you a racist.
This example betrays a problem in the analysis. Somebody who likes rodeo cowboys may be problematic for other reasons, given that everything is problematic to someone, but Glanville notes that this cowboy fan “innocently decorated” his office with “a noose.”
Oh no. A rodeo fan may well decorate his office with a lasso, but there is no such thing as innocently decorating an office with a noose. Nooses are not a rodeo cowboy’s tool. Lariats, or lassos are.* They are not the same, and they are not to be confused. Glanville decision to use the word “noose” rather than “lariat” dictates the outcome, as the former bespeaks a lynching whereas the latter is thrown to catch a “dogie.” The rodeo fan may have a lasso, but Glanville sees a noose.
When something is ambiguous, and there are no further facts to nudge the decision one direction or the other, who gets to decide whether it’s guilty or innocent? Glanville chooses his experience to define the ambiguous act. The Cubs management did as well, deciding that the person who made the gesture was not okay. And both are allowed, as they aren’t constrained to abide the gesture, even if made innocently, by “technical” rules such as assuming innocence or proving guilt.
But if you’re the guy making the okay gesture, you can’t win no matter how innocently it was intended. Despite the origin of the meme, it’s now forbidden, not because the okay gesture is inherently racist but because it’s ambiguous, and that’s close enough for guilt.
*Curiously, if you google “lasso,” the first definition is “a rope with a noose at one end, used especially in North America for catching cattle or horses.” In contrast, if you google “noose,” the first definition is “a loop with a running knot, tightening as the rope or wire is pulled and typically used to hang people or trap animals.”